28 August 1924 - 29 January 2004
Janet Frame was born in Dunedin New Zealand in 1924 into a working class family. She was raised with a love of words, of literature and of nature, and her writing talent was recognised at an early age. However writing, especially for a woman, was not regarded as a 'real job'.
‘They think I'm going to be a schoolteacher but I'm going to be a poet’
(From To the Is-Land: An Autobiography Volume 1)
The fate befalling the young woman who walked out of her classroom because she wanted to be a poet has been well documented. Desperately unhappy because of family tragedies and finding herself heading towards the wrong vocation (as a schoolteacher), her only escape appeared to be in submission to society's judgement of her as abnormal. Between 1945 and 1955 Janet Frame spent a total of four and a half years in several New Zealand mental hospitals after being initially misdiagnosed with schizophrenia based on the word of an unqualified university tutor and without any proper medical investigation. Between the admissions to hospitals she earned her living by doing domestic live-in work and writing in her spare time. The story of her almost miraculous survival of the horrors and brutalising treatment in unenlightened institutions has become an inspiration.
She continued to write throughout her troubled years, and her first book The Lagoon and Other Stories (1952) won a prestigious literary prize, thus convincing her doctors not to carry out a scheduled lobotomy. After this accolade and reprieve, Janet Frame returned to society, but not the one that had labelled her a misfit. She sought the support and company of other writers and set out single-mindedly and courageously to achieve her goal of being accepted as a writer. She wrote her first novel (Owls Do Cry) while staying in a rented hut in fellow author Frank Sargeson’s back garden, and then left New Zealand in 1957, not to return for seven years.
"When [Owls Do Cry] was published, I was alarmed to find that it was believed to be autobiographical, with the characters actual members of my family, and myself the character Daphne upon whom a brain operation was performed... Daphne resembled me in many ways except in her frailty and absorption in fantasy to the exclusion of 'reality'; I have always been strong and practical, even commonplace in my everyday life"
(From An Angel at My Table: An Autobiography Volume 2)
Frame lived first in Ibiza and later in England where eventually she was assessed by specialists and liberated from the misguided diagnosis of schizophrenia. Acting on advice from her doctor ("as I was obviously suffering from the effects of my long stay in hospital in New Zealand"), she produced the novel Faces in The Water (1961): an exquisitely written fictional transformation of some of the torments she had experienced and the misfortunes she had witnessed during her stays in psychiatric wards.
From this point on Janet Frame had the confidence to resist a portrayal of herself as 'crazy' simply because she wanted to live a mainly solitary life, avoiding marriage and family and a 'real' job, so that she could preserve her 'own world' - her writing. She changed her surname to 'Clutha' (after a New Zealand river) and was issued with a new passport. She continued to write under the name Janet Frame and attempted to live as anonymously as possible under the pseudonym.
She worked prolifically and later returned to New Zealand as an established author internationally acclaimed for her unique literary style in which she pushed the boundaries of the traditions she drew from and grew out of.
She based herself in her home country for the rest of her life, although she travelled frequently to the United States and England.
In her lifetime she published eleven novels, five collections of stories, a volume of poetry and a children's book. As her fame grew and readers became curious to know more about the private life behind the famous ‘local girl made good’, her reluctance to make more than a few public appearances led to a perception of her as a recluse who was unable, rather than unwilling, to jump through the publicity hoops generally expected at the release of each new volume. Her relative absence from the lecterns and radio waves of the nation allowed conjecture and rumour to proliferate. Exasperation at some of the 'myths' she heard about herself, led her to attempt to ‘set the record straight’ in the celebrated autobiographical trilogy she wrote as she approached the age of sixty. The success of the autobiography led to even more fame, and when Jane Campion released her film adaptation An Angel at my Table, Janet Frame's story became a worldwide source of inspiration far beyond her usual international literary audience. In her home country she was already affectionately regarded as a cultural 'icon'.
Throughout her long career she received many honours at home and abroad. She was the only New Zealand author to win the annual literary awards for all four types of writing: short stories, novels, poetry and non-fiction. She was made a CBE in 1983 for services to literature, awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Otago University in 1978, and one from Waikato University in 1992. She received New Zealand's highest civil honour in 1990 when she was made a Member of the Order of New Zealand. With an eye to her posthumous career, Janet Frame founded the Janet Frame Literary Trust in 1999 and appointed several trustees who were instructed to carry out her wishes for her literary estate after her death. Janet Frame died of leukemia in Dunedin in 2004.